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'The sanctity of the confession box is still an issue when it comes to keeping children safe'

Survivors of Ryan, Ferns, Murphy and Cloyne are angry, writes Tanya Ward.

Tanya Ward Children's Rights Alliance

YEARS AFTER THE Ryan, Ferns, Murphy and Cloyne Reports, the sanctity of the confession box is still an issue when it comes to keeping children safe.

Ryan, Ferns, Murphy and Clonye documented how children were forced into industrial schools, starved and abused.  When they tried to complain no one listened. Sexual abuse against children wasn’t seen as a crime. It was considered a ‘moral failing’ on the part of the perpetrator.

Offences against children were hidden from the authorities. Perpetrators were knowingly relocated to other parts of the country, in fact, even other parts of the world, where they continued their campaign of abuse against children.

Promises were made

Organisations throughout Ireland, including the Catholic Church, for years grappled with the fallout and shame from these reports. Promises were made. Never again would we let children down. Never again would institutions put their own interests before a child. Never again would any excuses be made.

The government introduced new laws in response. The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 made it a criminal offence for a person not to report any information relating to a sexual offence committed against a child.

The Children First Act 2015 placed a statutory duty on mandated persons to report suspicions, knowledge or a risk of a child being abused to the Child and Family Agency (Tusla).

There is no doubt that this legislation imposes new demands on organisations and people in contact with children. However if history has taught us anything it is that these duties are absolutely necessary and must be taken seriously. The child’s right to be protected from all forms of abuse and neglect is paramount. Or is it?

The confession box

The Catholic Church has invested considerable resources to improve its own child protection practices over the years and that’s very welcome. However, the national media recently spotlighted that the Catholic Bishops’ policy and standards for safeguarding children advises priests to ignore Children First in the confession box and that is concerning.

It clearly exposes priests to criminal prosecution down the line as the sanctity of the confession box is not a defence any judge is likely to accept. But somehow Canon law is superior? Somehow Children First doesn’t apply in the confession box?

Some might even argue that the right to practice one’s religion trumps the rights of the child. That’s simply not the case. The right to practice your religion is not absolute. The right of a child to be protected must always be paramount. There can be no exceptions for anyone.

What can be done?

This week I’ve had people contacting me asking me what can be done. Apart from directly appealing to the Catholic Church to explain their position, there is nothing that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone TD can do.

Tusla can ask an organisation to submit its Safeguarding Statement to the Agency, and it fails to do so, Tusla can include the organisation on its non-compliance register. But what happens if advice or guidance is in contravention of Children First? How does Tusla address this?

When the Children First Bill was going through the Oireachtas, the Children’s Rights Alliance, the ISPCC, Barnardos and many others, called for Tusla to be given powers to sanction organisations that failed to comply with Children First. However, we were told it wasn’t needed.

We were told that the government could withdraw funding from an organisation for violating the Children First Act. But what happens if it’s a private organisation with no reliance on government? What happens if that organisation actively advises its members to ignore rules that protect children? What then?

I understand the difficulties that the Church is facing in implementing this law. I really do. In fact, many providers are struggling in different ways to implement Children First. But we cannot stand back as a country and ignore the law. We have a moral duty to protect children.

Survivors are angry

I’m calling on government to urgently address this situation by amending the Children First Act 2015 to give Tusla more powers including the capacity to impose civil penalties for non-compliance by organisations and bodies.

Working out the details for this may be difficult but there are plenty of examples to draw from. Look at the Health and Safety Authority and the powers that it has. Surely we can come up with some solution.

Survivors of Ryan, Ferns, Murphy and Cloyne are angry. They have bravely worked hard to expose what happened to them and to make other children safe. We all have to play our part.

Tanya Ward is Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance.

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About the author:

Tanya Ward  / Children's Rights Alliance

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